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Deadlier than AIDS

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By Errol Louis
New York Daily News

Diabetes killed, or helped to kill, my Great-Aunt Euphemia, my Uncle Donald, my Aunt Mildred and Bernell, my mother-in-law. Because the disease often destroys blood circulation, a few of them were forced to undergo horrifying amputations before the end.

Two of my uncles and a brother-in-law have the disease now. My family, sadly, is not unusual in this respect.

In reality, diabetes is an epidemic. The disease - a failure of the body to produce or process the insulin needed to digest sugar and starch - killed 1,891 city residents in 2003, according to the Health Department. That's a one-year jump of 11%, making the disease more deadly than AIDS in the five boroughs for the first time. About 450,000 New Yorkers have the disease.

Diabetes is so prevalent in black and Latino communities that it has crept into the cultural fabric. It is now common to hear older women talk about the disease almost casually in church or at the corner store. "My sugar is acting up," they say, as if it were no more trouble than a toothache or a bout of insomnia.

Here's the infuriating part: 90% of these cases are probably preventable. The leading cause of diabetes is a lack of exercise combined with over-consumption of sugars and starches; over time, the body's ability to process the megadoses of starchy foods collapses.

The link between diabetes and the obesity caused by poor diets and nonexercise is so strong that some doctors have coined a new word for the disease: diabesity. Anybody can help stave off the disease by walking more, binging less and talking with a doctor about creating - and sticking to - a healthy diet.

Anna Lewis, an attorney and West Side activist, has taken to shouting from the rooftops about what it takes to avoid diabetes. Lewis is one of the 5% of diabetics who inherited the disease and has been dealing with it her whole life.

This week she spoke at a community health forum convened by the mid-Manhattan chapter of the NAACP. The event was ignored by news outlets, as are many life-or-death issues.

"I could have talked about it all night," says Lewis. "We don't do the kind of outreach we do for other kinds of diseases."

The reason diabetes gets a fraction of the attention devoted to diseases like AIDS, she says, is simple: "Rich people aren't the ones getting Type II diabetes, for the most part."

The disease is, indeed, concentrated among poor people. But we are all paying the cost. In one recent year, according to state figures, there were 330,000 hospitalizations for diabetes, at an average cost of $16,669 - a total of more than $5 billion.

The American Diabetes Association ( estimates that one in 10 health dollars goes to the disease nationally, a staggering $132 billion a year.

Everyone with an audience - politicians, preachers, teachers, journalists - should be urging the public to recognize the dimensions of the diabetes problem and the disastrous end of the road that awaits those who don't exercise or cut back on sugar and starch in their diets. We owe it to our neighbors, friends and family.

Originally published on May 19, 2005